Category Archives: Korea
I stopped eating meat about 30 years ago as an experiment in healthy eating. Like Yeong-hye, the central character in The Vegetarian, I came in for many challenges from certain members of my family who couldn’t understand why I wanted to forsake what, for them, was a standard element of any meal. Fortunately I had a more cohesive answer than the one Yeong-hye gives her husband: “I had a dream.” she tells him when he discovers her sat on the floor of their kitchen in Seoul, surrounded by packets of meat she has thrown out of the freezer.
We learn, though her husband doesn’t, that her dream is grotesque, bloody and aggressive. And so is the reaction to her decision. Her husband frets about how this will look to his boss who invites them for dinner (the resulting occasion is a painful event). father, so incensed that she will not eat the delicacies prepared for a family lunch, tries to force a piece of sweet-and-sour pork into her mouth. In protest Yeong-hye stabs herself.
And yet who would have imagined this of a woman whose nature until then had been so docile and insignificant; the very reason her husband chose her for his bride was that she was “completely unremarkable in every way”. And yet here she is refusing to wear a bra, defying Korean cultural expectations by putting her own needs above those of family and husband, and to eat only plants even though she is clearly starving herself. Only her brother in law, an unsuccessful video artist, finds her attractive. Unfortunately he’s not interested in her as such, only in Yeong-hye as a body, a canvas upon which he can paint giant flowers and plants. She becomes the object of his sexually-charged obsession that transforms her body into a “huge, abstracted plant.”
The Vegetarian is told in three acts which have distinctive differences in language from measured prose to almost hallucinatory description and to fragmented internal monologues where we get to learn what is going on in Yeong-hye’s mind.
Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts; nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I’m okay. Still okay. So why do they keep on shrinking? Not even round anymore. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening–what am I going to gouge
The first act, narrated by her husband interposed by Yeong-hye’s dreams, deals with her decision and her family’s reaction; the second is narrated by her brother-in-law and the third by her sister In-hye; the only member of the family who seems genuinely to care for Yeon-hye. She maintains contact when all others abandon the woman, unable to deal with her increasingly bizarre actions. But In-hye’s patience is tested severely when she visits her sister to learn she believes she is a tree, taking sustenance only from the soil, violently refusing attempts to force feed her when placed in a mental institution.
“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”
This is a portrait of disintegration. Yeong-hye’s rebellion causes her mental faculties to collapse and lead to the destruction of two families. It’s also a quite unflinching portrait about the clash between personal desire and conformity to expectations of behaviour in a society that denies such desires. Repeatedly we’re shown the clash between desire and denial in a way that asks disturbing questions about the nature of personal choice and ownership of one’s body in Korean society.
For a short novel, this is a startling piece of work. It’s disturbing in its portrayal of mental collapse, provocative in its portrayal of rebellion against conformity and unstinting with its descriptions of bleeding, vomiting, and manic behaviour. This is not a novel you can say you ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’ but it’s certainly one that you will not forget.
About the book: The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith was published in 2015. It was considered ‘very extreme and bizarre’ in Korea on first publication but has since been translated into more than 20 languages. The Vegetarian won the International Man Booker Prize in 2016. Han Kang has gone on record that the inspiration for the book, initially published as three novellas, was a line by a modernist poet Yi Sang: ‘I believe that humans should be plants.’ which obsessed her while she was at university. Further insights on the book are in an interview for the White Review.
About the author: Han Kang comes from a literary family in Korea, her father is a novelist and her brother a writer. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University, South Korea. She is the winner of several awards including the Yi Sang Literary Prize (2005), Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. Since 2013 she has been teaching creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. 2016 saw the publication in translation of Human Acts which begins with the massacre of students in South Korea in 1980. If you don’t know her work, you can get a taste with the short story Fruit of My Woman on the Granta website
Why I read this book: I bought The Vegetarian as a way of making up for my large deficiency of knowledge of writers from Asia. It’s the first book I’ve read from my 20booksof summerproject for 2017.
The Broke and Brookish this week is looking for suggestions for book club reading.
This wouldn’t be an easy one for me since our book club has rather wide ranging tastes – each person chooses a book so it reflects their taste rather than necessarily what the club as a whole likes. We went down the path of chick lit for a while turned me off but I’ve been introduced to some new authors in other month so it’s almost balanced out. For me a good book club read is one that has plenty of issues and dimensions that can lead to a good discussion – I want more than someone saying “I picked this because I thought it would be fun” and that’s all they can say about the book (believe me it has happened). The book choice doesn’t have to be particularly weighty but something to at least get your teeth into.
If I had my wishlist it would include:
I’ve gone for a mixture of styles, subjects and country of origin of the author (too many book clubs seem to focus only on Western literature).
- The Many by Wyl Menmuir reviewed here. A Booker long listed title from 2016 that I thought superb. It keeps you guessing about what the main message is.
- Another Booker 2016 candidate – and one I would dearly have loved to see win – is Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which traces the effect of Communist rule on three musicians. It’s an epic that stretches across centuries and countries. Not always easy to grasp it had tremendous emotional power. Reviewed here
- The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw. Set in Japan, a wonderful elliptical story in which a professor of law tells a story about his father’s fascination with traditional Japanese jigsaw puzzles.It’s a metaphor for how our lives are constructed by fragments. Reviewed here
- The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien. Set in a remote Irish village it examines what happens when a dictator on the run from atrocities he committed in his country attracts the attention of a lonely housewife. This book will have you thinking about actions and consequences and forgiveness. Reviewed here
- From Korea comes a book that was a knock out bestseller and not just in Korea. Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-sook looks at the mother-child relationship which is thrown into question when an elderly mother goes missing in an underground station while on her way to visit her children. As they search for her they discover secrets about her life and uncomfortable truths about their own attitudes.Reviewed here
- Possession by A. S Byatt was my choice when I joined the book club. I wasn’t sure I had make the right choice until the meeting but surprisingly we had a great discussion about the different forms possession can take -whether for artifacts f the past or for another individual. Reviewed here
- Holiday by Stanley Middleton.Who is he I can hear you asking. Not surprised really.Despite having written more than 40 novels he has more or less disappeared from our radar. A pity. This is a short novel from 1974 in which a middle aged man facing a crisis is his marriage takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside. It’s the same resort he visited year after year as a child when his parents took him for their annual holiday. Reflections of those times days mingle with more recent and more bitter memories. Good for discussions around nostalgia and relationships. Reviewed here
- L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. It’s not the first book in Zola’s Rougon-Marquet series of 20 titles but this doesn’t matter too much. Read it for its superb rendition of life on the breadline in nineteenth century Paris. You can, if your book club is of an academic mind, get into all kinds of discussion about Zola’s theory of naturalism and inherited conditions. Reviewed here
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chances are that your club has already read Half a Yellow Sun which is an earlier novel by Adichie. Americanah gives a view of life for a girl who leaves Nigeria – one of the people who achieves the dream – only to find its not what she expected. Can she make a new life or do the ties that bind back to the homeland prove stronger? It’s a novel about choices you make to fit in with a new way of life and how experience changes you. It might sound rather sombre but there are some outstandingly funny scenes in a hairdressing salon. Reviewed here
- Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan: We hope this never happens to anyone. But it does. What if you were one of the passengers in a ferry or cruise liner that is sinking. You’ve got yourself into a lifeboat and are now waiting for rescue. But days go by, water and food supplies dwindle. Who gets to live in those circumstances? Who deserves to die? And who has the right to make those decisions? Those questions lie at the heart of Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel. This isn’t the best written novel I read in 2013 but it was one that stimulated a lot of discussion in our book club meeting. Reviewed here
Those are just some of the books I’d suggest. What would your recommendations be?